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Fenugreek: homegrown greens, backyard spice rack

April 17, 2012 | 12:54 pm

FenugreekIt’s easy to think of fenugreek as something you're more likely to find in a spice rack than in a garden, but with almost no effort, it's easy to keep in both places. Fenugreek originated in western Asia and southern Europe, where it was used as a medicine, food and forage crop. The seeds were eaten boiled, like lentils, and used as an ingredient in incense. (Seeds were found in King Tut’s burial chamber.)

Nowadays the seeds are used as a flavoring for soups and cheeses, among other things, and delivering a scent that's vaguely similar to maple syrup. In India, the Middle East and parts of East Africa, the leaves are used like spinach and added to sauces and vegetable dishes.

“You have to grow quite a bit,” said Rishi Kumar, who runs the Growing Home urban farm in Diamond Bar. “But the good thing is that it grows very quickly. We trim the tops, and you need a massive amount of it because it cooks down a lot." The most popular dish, Kumar said, is leaves with finely chopped potatoes fried in clarified butter. "That's it. It has such a strong flavor you don't need to add any other spices."

Growing fenugreek is simple. Called methi in Hindi, fenugreek seeds are available at Indian or Middle Eastern grocery stores. Soak them in water overnight and scatter them densely in a bed of rich potting soil. Sprouts appear after about five days, and the first harvest is about three weeks later. The micro-sprouts that appear first are edible but bitter. After a month you have the better-tasting, clover-like leaves. Like lettuce, fenugreek is a fast-growing cut-and-come-again crop, good for about three successive harvests. Any extra can be chopped and frozen.

Fenugreek cat Fenugreek detailThe fourth harvest should be mowed down to the nub, Kumar said, leaving the roots behind. Because fenugreek is a legume, it’s a soil builder, useful for breaking up hard-packed clay soil or as a green manure for new beds.

“It makes a great living mulch,” said Kumar, who usually has at least three beds going, planted in two-week intervals for a continual harvest. If you let the plants mature, they will grow about 2 feet tall and send out delicate white flowers. The pods that follow are small, each containing about a dozen seeds.

Now is the time to plant fenugreek because spring and fall crops are generally milder in taste. Fenugreek doesn’t like intense heat, doing best under 80 degrees. Later in the season, Kumar grows it in the shade of nitrogen-loving fruit trees.  Fenugreek also grows easily in containers, making it a great edible to grow on a balcony or where space is limited. Seed sources include www.indusorganics.com.

-- Jeff Spurrier

The Global Garden, a look at our multicultural city through the lens of its landscapes, appears here on Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.


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Photos: Ann Summa